When the country was first locked down, I predicted the shackles would come off by mid-May and so it is proving.

It is unimaginable that the position of the Scottish Government can remain different from England for long. It is causing chaos and confusion for most ordinary folk who have been accommodating and co-operative to date.

One minute the national news is advising folk to go back to work, or play golf and then the Scottish news says no, we’ve all to stay at home. It is untenable and politicians need to get this posturing nonsense sorted out or folk will do as they please.

In fact, judging by the traffic on the A76 through our farms in the last week, they are starting to anyway.

At least there is a glimmer of hope that the worst of Covid-19 is behind us, at least for now. Like the pathetic beef price during April and early May, hopefully that’s in the past.

I’ve written about this so much I’m getting sick of it, but not as sick as I am of the antics of some of our processors and their multiple retailer customers. The beef price is now back on the way up and not before time. This time we must get it up and keep it up.

For too long we have been price takers and it’s time finishers started to exert some control, or roller coaster pricing will continue at the behest of a few powerful processors and multiple retailers.

That won’t be easy. In Eire, ABP, Dawn Meats and Kepak directly control 70% of the beef market. Add to this indirect investments, like ABP’s stake in Slaney Meats and other trading relationships, and that domination is extraordinary and extremely unhealthy, particularly for their thousands of farmer suppliers.

In the UK, Irish businesses control 45% of our beef market directly and, similar to Eire, other trading relationships – for example others supplying ABP’s huge UK processing plants – mean that in reality this position of power is even more dominant.

ABP is estimated to control over 20% of the UK kill directly and more than 25% of the Irish kill and is regularly reported as the instigator of major changes in pricing and specification across the UK and Ireland. They were the first to force the price down in March (using the PR of the UK trade associations SAMW and BMPA) to make the excuse that this was due to a drop in the value of the fifth quarter.

It was just that – an excuse. Really efficient processors, particularly Irish-owned ones, are masters at extracting value from the fifth quarter. Ox cheeks, ox tails and every conceivable sinew and fluid which can be recovered compliant with regulations all have considerable value for human consumption. Then there are parts that go into pet food which are also valuable.

One industry expert recently told me that pet dogs in the UK eat almost as much beef as their owners!

Then, there's fat. First, edible fat from cutting plants and other Cat 3 tallow, which command high values and finally Category 1 material, which I know well from my biodiesel refining days, which also has considerable value as the demand for cleaner, greener fuel grows.

Then, of course, the hide, which still has value but not so much as it could because the hide market is also concentrated in too few hands – we all know what that does to a market!

Then, there's blood. I learnt recently that almost all of the blood used in Scotland to make black pudding comes from Denmark. Why is that?

Many good processors already add value to every single by-product from the main beef carcase and the Chinese and others are hungry consumers of many of these.

The fifth quarter to an abattoir is like slurry to a beef farmer. Slurry isn’t a waste product, although it is too often treated as one. Applied at the right time in the right way, its nutrient value and the savings which can be made not buying in fertiliser are colossal.

Today, the cumulative value of all the ‘bits’ that make up the fifth quarter is around £120 per beast on an average 380kg carcase, or about 30p/dwkg. This number is not made up – it comes from work I’ve done with an industry expert. How much finishers see of this is debatable.

Once the fifth quarter excuse disappeared, then it was carcase balance that got the blame for an unjustifiable recent price drop. Of course, that argument is quite difficult to run with and sustain when the shelves of Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury are full of imported beef, some from Poland and loads from Ireland.

Irish beef, subsidised by the Irish Government, is being sold in UK supermarkets, which in turn are being supported by Governments across the UK, with a huge Business Rates Relief Scheme. That is outrageous.

In the week beginning April 29, the average Polish farmgate price was £2.52/kg for R3 heifers (average YTD £2.80/kg), £2.38/kg for R3 bulls (average £2.72/kg) and cows £2.03/kg (average £2.32/kg).

It is clear that these imports are nothing to do with carcase balance – they are all about increasing margins for processors and retailers, at the expense of UK producers.

To underline our suspicions, Kantar Worldpanel further drove a coach and horses through the fantasy press releases of the processors to reveal a 12% increase in beef sales in the four weeks to mid-April, with strong demand for almost every conceivable cut.

So, what exactly happened to drive down our beef price at the end of March/beginning of April? The truth is, led by the dominant beef processor in the UK and Ireland, and one of Europe’s biggest agribusinesses, ABP, with the rest of the Irish companies and others happily following suit, they did it because they can.

There is no doubt that they talk about price amongst each other all the time, especially when they are attempting to (and mostly succeeding), drive prices down, despite protestations to the contrary. I’ve spoken to enough people who are in the trade, or who have left the trade who all tell the same story.

ABP’s owner, Larry Goodman, is an amazingly successful and powerful individual, surrounded by talented, bright and ruthless managers. He owns 51 processing plants around Europe, employs an estimated 11,000 people in Ireland, the UK, Spain, France, Denmark, Holland, Austria and Poland. He also has extensive interests in property, healthcare, and farming.

His personal nett worth is estimated at €2.5bn. In accounts filed in Luxembourg 2018/19, nine companies in the Goodman Group had assets on the balance sheet of €3.5bn, declared €170m of profit and paid no tax.

Four companies based in Luxembourg – Silverbirch Investments, KH Holdings, Aburg and Parlesse Investments are reported as being used ‘for inter-group financial transactions’. They have no employees and produced €123m of profit, with €2.5bn on the balance sheet at the end of March, 2018.

These four report details of two Irish, one Jersey and two companies in the Netherlands. This whole structure is headed by entities based in Liechtenstein, which don’t publish accounts or details of who the beneficiaries are.

The biggest beef processor in the UK and Ireland also own C and D Foods, one of the biggest pet food suppliers in Europe. It has also just acquired John Pointon and Sons, one of the UK’s biggest rendering businesses, near Stoke, for a reported £30-£40m to add to other rendering facilities. It appears to have all the angles in our industry tied up.

Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Burger King are amongst the long list of well-known names this excellent business has, or has had as customers. As the first to export Irish beef to the US and China post-BSE and operating every conceivable kind of added value processing site, it doesn’t look or sound to me like a group of companies which should have a problem with the fifth quarter or balancing the carcase? Other big Irish processors are not far behind.

Politically connected in Ireland like no other for the last 40 odd years, Larry Goodman has built an extraordinary business empire and has the wealth and power to go with it.

But exploiting thousands of weak sellers across the UK and Ireland, especially in a crisis (BSE, foot-and-mouth, last year’s Brexit and now Covid-19) is, for many, an abuse of that power and dominance that needs to be curtailed.

In my experience of doing deals, everyone around the table needs a turn. My father used to say: "Leave some bread on the table for the next guy, he has to eat as well."

Unfortunately, in the beef sector we have the double whammy of all powerful processors led by the best, ABP, supplying some powerful retailers who consistently shaft their suppliers.

But we have something that they both need and that is the raw material to fill these super-efficient, prize-winning meat factories, which generate hundreds of millions of untaxed income for their very private owners, which stock the shelves of the retailers.

So, why don’t we screw the nut and start working together to change this? There are a small number of big finishers in Scotland who, if they chose to, could stop supplying any of them tomorrow, unless they receive a fair price and acceptable T and Cs – with others following suit, that would make a difference.

Some will say: ‘But where would I send my young bulls?’. And, of course, some will be tempted by an extra 5p/kg, which will no doubt be offered to keep them as suppliers. But 5p/kg extra on a crap price is still a crap price, even if you are paid on the day – think long and hard about it.

David can beat Goliath. It happens all the time and this needs to happen for the long-term health of our sector. It needs to happen now.

We cannot keep getting bullied and manipulated by companies, even those as professional and successful as the likes of ABP. Do you want to end up accepting Polish, or Irish prices for cattle, or do you want to get a fair return for doing a decent job?

The choice is ours because this has to change and change fundamentally. The behaviour of processors and their retail customers recently revealed the true nature of their attitude to their suppliers.

Threatening producers that prices would be driven down to £3/kg because they have the power to do it, while they import Polish or subsidised Irish beef, is disgusting and shows that they couldn’t give a damn about the welfare of thousands of small businesses who supply them, only in profit and greed.

If that wasn’t obvious before, it should be now. This idea of us ‘all being in this together’ is a fantasy peddled by folk who know little or nothing about the true workings of our beef sector, which has in some cases become so morally bankrupt it is embarrassing.

It’s time we fought back, if we really want a different future.